BLUES IN BATTLE FOR EUROS FINAL PLACE
The first semi-final of Euro 2012 takes place this evening in Donetsk as holders Spain take on neighbours Portugal in a match which will culminate in mixed emotions for the Chelsea contingent still involved in the competition.
Raul Meireles has started every game for the Portuguese thus far, and he will certainly fancy their chances of springing a major surprise, particularly with inspirational talisman Cristiano Ronaldo in such fine form at present.
The Real Madrid ace scored the only goal of the game in Portugal's 1-0 quarter-final win over Czech Republic, while also netting a brace in the 2-1 win over Holland in the final group game, a result which ultimately took them through to the knockout stages, and there is no doubt that he will be the key man if Paulo Bento's side are to overcome the current world and European champions.
Spain, following a mixed set of performances in the group stages, were excellent in their 2-0 quarter-final win against France on Saturday, and the big dilemma for coach Vicente Del Bosque will be whether or not to play with a recognised striker such as Fernando Torres, or persist with deploying Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas in a more advanced role.
Much has been made of the controversial tactical move, but with eight goals scored and only one conceded up to this point, even Del Bosque's fiercest critics would have to acknowledge that in terms of results, it's a decision which has reaped rewards.
However, it has to be said that on both occasions when they have started with Torres - against Republic of Ireland and Croatia - Spain have won the game, while also possessing far more of a cutting edge.
Portugal have been impressive since losing their opening game 1-0 to Germany, although they will be without their main striker, Helder Postiga, who looks set to miss out through injury.
Solid, hard to break down and always a threat in the final third, Spain will need to be at their very best to contain the threat posed by the likes of Ronaldo, Nani and one of the standout performers in the tournament, Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho.
The Spaniards, meanwhile, have potential matchwinners all over the pitch. Torres, if selected, has shown glimpses of what he can produce, particularly in the 4-0 win over Republic of Ireland when he scored twice, while Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Xabi Alonso, who scored both goals against France, have also shown their qualities consistently.
With the likes of Pedro, Jesus Navas, Santi Cazorla and Chelsea's Juan Mata, who is yet to feature, all available to call upon from the bench, it just goes to show the strength-in-depth of the squad and the embarrassment of riches available for Del Bosque to select from.
The last competitive meeting between the two teams came at the 2010 World Cup in Germany, when a solitary David Villa strike was enough to send Spain through to the quarter-finals en route to winning the tournament, while a few months later Portugal exacted revenge of some sort with a 4-0 friendly win in Lisbon.
With so much at stake, semi-finals are notoriously cagey affairs, and expect this one to be much the same. The first goal could be crucial, but with Spain possessing more of an all-round attacking threat, they may just shade it, remaining on course to become the first team to retain the trophy.